The Mouse That Roars: On Short People, Caricature & the #TinyTrump Hashtag

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Extreme difference in size or scale is a staple of comedy, caricature, folklore, and literature.    The Brothers Grimm, for instance, tell many stories about small people who comically stumble through the world and are thought not just to be small in scale but small minded.  Take, for instance, “The Seven Swabians,” a story about how seven individuals – who have never been outside their small town – go out to see the world. They are frightened to death.  But the punch line comes in the end when we realize that these are not people like you and I; they are small people who see everything in the world as big and frightful.    Gustave Flaubert’s final novel, Bouvard and Pechuchet  – which wasn’t published until after his death – draws on comic tradition and presents two comic characters, one tall and the other small, as embodying the essence of comedy.  Even the poet Paul Celan got in on the act in his only comic story, “Conversation in the Mountains,” whose main characters are Klein (Small) and Gross (Big).  What Grimm, Flaubert, and Celan understand is that scale is the key to comedy.

Charles Baudelaire wrote extensively on caricature.  As Michele Hanoosh points out in Baudelaire and Caricature: From the Comic to the Art of Modernity, Baudelaire proposed an “aesthetic of caricature” and a “caricatural aesthetic” which was “dual and contradictory, grotesque, ironic, violent, farcical, and fleeting”(4).   This kind of caricature not only defines “the painting of modern life” but the “discourse of modernity as well”(4).  The modern city is the space of the comic.  The flanuer is likened to a laugher.  He is both the subject and the object of laughter.   The basis of this laughter and doubleness is historical; it is modernity.   But  what is the most interesting aspect of this kind of modernity is the tension it creates not only between the viewer and himself, but the historical tension it brings out between the popular and the academic (between high and low culture).

As Hanoosh notes, Baudelaire sees caricature, at his time, as a “subversion of academic ideals”(14).  Those who ridicule Rabelais and the caricaturists become, by virtue of the populous that embraces caricature and its vulgar meanings – the objects of ridicule.      While this is the case, Baudelaire also points out – in his essay on laughter – that the “essential” comic is satanic.  It celebrates what is base not what is holy.   It also thrives on ridicule. The example Baudelaire uses draws from an ETA Hoffman story where a little girl’s father (a “magician”) tricks her into seeing a group of soldiers, who she idealized, as dirty animals.  (The father brings her into a tent where they are sleeping and “lifts the flap.” When he exposes his daughter, he ruins her perception and grounds it in baseness.)

Like much else in comedy these days, the object of ridicule is put into question.  Who can ridicule who has become a major question since many groups of people may feel offended about jokes that go outside one group.  In light of this, most comics these days prefer to make fun of themselves.   One of the most interesting challenges to this, however, is the question of scale.  As I have noted elsewhere, small people have been the object of ridicule for centuries.  Organizations – such as the Little People of America – and websites have emerged to support small people around the world.

But smallness need not be thought of in a negative, comical manner.  It has been transvaluated (in a Bloomian or Nietzschean sense) by writers such as Franz Kafka and Robert Walser, comic artists like Robert Crumb and Ben Katchor, and musicians like Randy Newman (although people largely misinterpreted his famous song, “Short People”).

One wonders, however, what to make of many Austin Powers films which cast Dr. Evil and his co-hort “Mini-Me” – that is, scale comedy – as the main feature.   Is this a transvaluation?  It seems to be doing what caricature has been doing for centuries.  Both the big and the small – in terms of scale – come across as ridiculous but charming.  The comedy of scale also goes hand-in-hand with low intelligence and bad decision making.  Mini-me, of course, is the punch line.  He serves to amplify Dr. Evil’s wild stupidity.

Most recently, scale comedy has been used in the political effort against Donald Trump.  In all of these pieces, he appears small and infantile in comparison to President Obama and others.  And this comical difference renders him incapable of being taken seriously by anyone.  This goes hand-in-hand with the jokes that were told about his small hands (that were read as code for a “small penis).  This meme led to a discussion in different places about the uses and abuses of comedy.  The point of these memes is tactical and, of course, political. They aim to reduce or challenge Trump’s power by making him look small or infantile in comparison to the adults and bigger people.

While a rap artist like “Lil Dicky” has transformed this into something positive and lucrative, the expression “little dick” in American culture is by no means a complement.   He takes being a schlemiel-cuckold to another level. But this is all self-deprecating humor.

Even so, whether it is Trump or Lil Dicky, the humor works within the same kind of code: smallness is deplorable and infantile; bigness is optimal.  Expansion, not contraction.  And, as most theorists of comedy point out, the position of the laugher is one of superiority.  Even Baudelaire, who found laughter “satanic” and base, knew that it was elevating.  Comedy aims to take the laugher up, which Henri Bergson saw expressing the free, living intellect; it goes up, while the small guy (the one laughed at) – whose life is mechanical and doesn’t grow but, repeats, stays the same, small, and local – goes down.

The point I am trying to make is that smallness can be used to either ridicule and increase a sense of superiority and bigness; or smallness can overturn ridicule and keep that hierarchical power relationship (between the big and the small) from happening.  But the comedy of scale always seems to live on.  Regardless of one’s position on different kinds of comedy, the fact of the matter is that the comedy of scale clearly has a grip on us and it won’t go away.   The small person is still not taken seriously.  However, she is entertaining and may even, as with Lil Dicky (Woody Allen, Gary Shandling, etc), gain our pity (albeit in a comical manner) and become famous.

The fact of the matter is that the fate of smallness in the public eye is different from the fate of smallness in literature.  What we find in Flaubert, Kafka, Walser, and Celan is not what we find on Buzzfeed or Twitter.  Perhaps that difference informs what Baudelaire called the “aesthetic of caricature” as opposed to the “caricatural aesthetic.”  It may also inform an approach to smallness that finds something much more powerful and humbling in the micros.   It’s all in the (small) details.

The problem is that one kind of smallness can displace the other.  That displacement may have to do with the discourse of power and two types of comedy which, I have argued, are to be found in Nietzsche and Robert Walser.   Today, that comedy of scale is being played out before our very eyes.  But, given what we are seeing these days, Nietzsche is winning the battle.  And maybe that has to do with the fact that we have a comedian in the White House who doesn’t shy away from insulting anyone who stands in his way.  He is taking on what Baudelaire is calling the “caricatural aesthetic” and so has the hashtag #TinyTrump.  We seem to be in a comedic agon of sorts and the “tiny” person seems to have been thrown into the ring.  This is comedy of scale.

In this space, the mouse roars.

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